A Field Guide to ALL of the Carnivores! (Almost)

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Why would you want a field guide to all of the carninvores? They live everywhere, so there is no reason to carry around a field identification guide with ALL of them unless you were going everywhere in the whole world on one trip!

Yet, there is such a field guide, Carnivores of the World (Princeton Field Guides), and the truth is, this is ONE OF THE COOLEST BOOKS I’VE EVER SEEN! All the carnivores (almost) in one book. Interestingly, it turns out to be possible. There are fewer than three hundred species of terrestrial carnivore in the whole world, and that is fittable in a single book.

That itself is an interesting fact, in proper context. Indeed, when I went through this book, spending a bit of time on each and every page, a number of interesting thoughts about carnivores came to mind….

Regarding taxonomy, diversity, and disparity (the former = number of species, the latter = how different they are), carnivores are fairly unique, but in a way that applies as well to primates. Looking only at the regular terrestrial carnivores first, they are all very similar in certain respects yet there is a fair amount of variation among them, including a huge range of body size from the smallest carnivore that could easily hang out in an open soda can to the largest being the northern Bears (either polar or brown, depending on how you measure a species “size”). There are almost 30 orders of Mammalia, and Carnivora is about the fifth most speciose. Yet, Carnivora has fewer than 300 species. Compared to some other animal Classes (Mammalia is a Class). the mammals, for all the interest we have in them, are fairly low density in respect to species (there are something like 10,000 Birds!), high in disparity (the “hooved animals” includes whales and bats fly like birds!) and are rather cryptic with respect to how visible they are on the landscape (compared, again, to birds, which are always rather in your face).

Carnivores, relative to some of the more common mammal Classes, are both ubiquitous and thinly distributed. As you track mammals across the landscape, you might find that certain mammals are highly concentrated here and there, almost absent in other places. The total biomass of bovids in northern climes varies dramatically as you go from herds of bison to forests with thinly distributed deer to tundra or mountain slopes where the highly specialized forms occur in small groups with big gaps between. But everywhere you go, you will be within the territory of a carnivore. In fact, as a rule, you’ll be within the territory of between two and four carnivores, as they tend to divide themselves up by size class, with the classes sometimes competing with each other. In one place there may be otters or minks (small) and coyotes (medium) and either a cougar or a wolf pack (large), or there may be lots of coyotes (large) and otherwise mainly stoats and the like (small). In much of Africa, there will be one large cat (lion) one small cat (golden, wild-house, or sand?) one hyena and two or more mongoose-getet-civet-like creatures that are different from each other in size covering the exact spot you are standing. You’re standing there looking at some bird, and off in the bush there are five carnivores looking at you. In the ancient middle east, there would be lion, leopard, a smaller cat, and an even smaller cat. And so on.

Don’t think about that too much … it is just a rule of thumb. The point is, most space is occupied by carnivores, yet at the same time they are way spread out because of their territorial habits which arose for a number of reasons including the fact that they eat other animals and thus are limited. And, this means that as they disperse during their own carnivoresque personal development cycle, they tend to disperse over very long distances, maybe not during all generations but certainly some. Therefore, some carnivore species have huge ranges, or if they have diversified a bit, some carnivore groups of species have huge ranges. And, for many types of carnivores, there are both tropical and template’s and in between forms. This is not typical of the other orders of mammals.

This is why we get interesting patterns such as the fact that the New World cougar and the Cheetah are close relatives, having differentiated in North America. The Cougar did not spread from North America probably (this is just an educated guess) because medium+ size cats were already everywhere, but the Cheetah was rather a novelty … a doggish cat that could run as fast as the fastest antelope or pronghorn … so it did spread. Subsequent events left the Cheetah only in Africa but it was once more widely dispersed (as a type of cat, not necessarily the same species).

The lion was probably the one mammal among all mammals, other than humans, that has the largest range of all mammals ever, having been spread across North America, Europe, Asia and Africa not too long ago. And so on and so forth.

The result of these patterns of adaptation, dispersal, and ecology is what you see in Carnivores of the World (Princeton Field Guides). When you look at the carnivores organized more or less by taxonomy and then pay attention to the geography, your mind will be blown and you will demand an explanation! How the hell did we get the same basic animal living in the woods of North America (wolverine) and the nearby prairies (badgers) as we have across Europe and Asia and Africa (the honey badger) with about dozen or so other versions all over the place? And you will see other patterns as well; As you thumb through the pages, you will repeatedly see size grading among the carnivores, but most of the size grading is localized. It isn’t like Asia has large otter-mink-stoat critters and Africa small ones .. everywhere gets a range from small to large. Also, as you thumb through the pages, every here and there you’ll see “Crab Eating X” where “X” is some kind of animal (dog, badger, cat, whatever). Either carnivores like them their crabs or carnivore namers are regularly surprised enough to see crab eating that they tend to name anything they see eating a crab after that behavior, even if some of them actually rarely do. (Had I named coyotes after my first extended wild encounters with them, they would be the “crab eating dog”!)

Hunter’s book does not cover the fish. Yes, folks, just as the “hooved animals” gave rise to several fish (whales) and other groups have given rise to fish (hippos, etc.) the carnivores has a fish branch as well (walrus, seals, sea lions). I think it would be cool if Carnivores of the World (Princeton Field Guides) included these critters as well. Including them would make important points about evolution. I respect the fact that this book is written by an expert on land carnivores, so having seals and such in there with the terrestrial forms may be inappropriate. But in a future edition of the book, I would love to see five pages dedicated to the Fish nee Carnivores, not all species but just a nod to the families of seals, walrus, and sea lions.

The other thing that is missing from this book that I would very much like to see and that I must insist (as if I could) be included in the next edition is range maps. I have ideas as to how to make them fit. It is important. (But see below)

Luke Hunter is an Australian who has done research in South Africa and elsewhere. He heads the Panthera Corporation and formerly headed Great Cats and the Wildlife CosnervationSociety.

The Panthera Foundation web site has lots of information about carnivores, and in particular, you can download the range maps that are missing from the book, here!

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26 thoughts on “A Field Guide to ALL of the Carnivores! (Almost)

  1. I guess the Amazon is one of the places where the most carnivore eyes are watching us. In a good forest there are 5 cats, 2 dogs, and about 6 mustelids (two aquatic).

  2. I thought it was very interesting that there are fewer that three hundred species of terrestrial carnivores and that (almost) all are able to fit in one book. I also thought that the information about geography and location of all the carnivores is interesting to think about it. I was interested as to why some of these species of carnivores have such diverse locations. I found some information about the different biomes: http://www.eoearth.org/article/Terrestrial_biome I would still like to learn more about why we have the some of the same animals living in so many different biomes and places.

  3. I thought this was really interesting – I didn’t realize there were so few mammalian carnivores, nor did I know Cheetahs originated in North America. However, I did get stuck for a moment on the part about “Crab Eating X”, which I took to mean that there were numerous pictures of crabs eating dogs, badgers and cats in this book. Then I remembered the joke about seeing a man eating shrimp in the aquarium café and realized what you meant.

  4. One place this would come in handy as a sort of field guide would be at a zoo. There’s never enough information on the little signs they put up on the enclosures, and this would probably fill that need for the carnivores. Next we need a good guide to antelopes, I guess.

  5. Lions are the most widespread of mammals after humans? I assume you mean they were dispersed over the continents naturally unlike the ubiquitous brown rat that travelled by ship to nearly every corner of the earth.

    Also a book I heartily recommend to anyone interested in carnivores is the Velvet Claw by conservationist and carnivore specialist David MacDonald. It shows the earliest ancestors of this group as well as th extant species and goes in incredible detail about their anatomy, ecology, evolution and behaviour.

    Darren Naish dedicated two articles to the TV series this book was based off and it makes me really to see it!


  6. Looking through the range maps I found one fairly major error — the map for the Palawan stink badger is the same as that for the pygmy spotted skunk. I wondered about this creature I’d never heard of, with a distinctly odd and memorable name, that supposedly occurs in an area where I’ve spend considerable time. Turns out the stink badger is supposed to be mapped in the Philippines, not the western coast of Mexico. They accidentally used the same map twice.

    And speaking of crab-eating things, the crab-eating raccoon lives quite a bit farther north than the range map shows. I saw a number of them in coastal thickets in the cape region of the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica. The map for this sp. does not suggest they get even to C.R., but there are lots of references to them being there, even just from a brief internet search.

    Another interesting thing pointed out by the maps, an apparent weakness in our documented knowledge, involves the jaguarundi. It’s not mapped as even making it to Sonora on the W coast of Mexico. After further digging, I was surprised to learn that there are no specimen records north of Sinaloa, though there are a number of sight records north as far as southern Arizona. The AZ records are generally discounted, since no specimen has been obtained. But, they’re probably there IMO. I was on a trip to southern AZ c. 20 years ago (Santa Cruz Co., near the Sonora border) and while most of us were out doing various things, the two guys (good biologists with lots of experience) who stayed in camp saw a bobcat-sized brown cat with a long tail that they were sure could only be a jaguarundi. No photos or other proof, but I believe them, and kinda wish I’d stayed in camp that day.

  7. Greg, I greatly appreciate the time and effort you devote to this blog. It rarely fails to inform and/or entertain me! Thank you. One idea I hope you might expand on:
    “carnivores are fairly unique, but in a way that applies as well to primates” How so?

  8. Michael: I hope to expand on that discussion at some point. Briefly, both have similar ranges of body size (huge) and both have relatively low densities on the landcape where they occur compared to rodents, bats, lagomorphs, etc. They are different in that primates don’t really exist or diversify in non-tropical areas much.

    Achrachno: I saw problems in the maps as well, some seemingly because of rather conservative estimates but certainly having the wrong continent is an issue.

    I shall inform the author/publisher. The nice thing about it being on the web is that it is fixable!

  9. @ Greg,

    Oh that is fair enough. Was pretty tired when I read this post so my comprehension was not the best! Thanks for the clarification.

  10. This book sounds really interesting, I’ll be sure to give it a look. With the thousands of species of animals on earth it just seems ridiculous that less than 300 are carnivores. However, given that there is so much competition for a meat-eater compared to an herbivore, it makes sense that there can only be a few species of carnivore thriving in a given area. After all, grazing animals like zebra are not about to run out of grass to feed on, but if the lions had much more competition there would be no zebra left to eat. This website has more information on what occurs when two animals compete to fulfill the same niche (one is inevitably displaced or becomes extinct), and on the dominant carnivores in each of the earth’s biomes.
    Since i’m seeing some discussion about what we would like to see in another book, I think it would be very interesting to touch on what types of competition some of today’s carnivores once faced (i.e. what other carnivores they competed with) and how they overcame the resulting competition for resources.

  11. That book sounds really interesting i’ll be sure to give it a look. It just seems ridiculous that out of the thousands of species of animals on earth, less than 300 are carnivores. It does make sense, though, that there could only be a few carnivores in a given area, as there is a limited supply of other animals to feed on. After all, a zebra is not in much danger of running out of grass just because there are other herbivores that feed on it as well, but if a lion had to compete with many other carnivores, it would very quickly run out of zebra to eat. This website has more information about what happens when multiple organisms compete to fill the same niche (one is eventually displaced or becomes extinct), and has more interesting details about the dominant carnivores in each of the world’s biomes. http://www.blueplanetbiomes.org/animals.htm
    Since we are talking about what we would like to see in another book, I think it would be interesting to see what competition today’s carnivores once faced (i.e. other carnivores) and how they overcame their competitors in the struggle for resources.

  12. Thank you Greg for the quick and coherent response to my inquiry. I understand your point now, yet as is often the case one answer often leads to other questions.

    “primates don’t really exist or diversify in non-tropical areas much” Well, for lorises, lemurs, monkeys, apes and various other cousins that is certainly true. But of course I’m sure we can all think of one primate that is a very major exception to that rule of thumb!

    When I thought about humans as an exception, I dismissed it as not so interesting. After all the evolution of fully modern intelligence was such a game changer that of course modern humans spread everywhere that the terrestrial Carnivores had spread to. And yet…

    Starting about 2 million years ago Homo Erectus spread throughout Asia and Europe, and not only in tropical habitats. Although they likely had intellectual capabilities beyond earlier hominids, to say nothing of apes, their level of technology at that time would seem to indicate that they were a very, very far cry from fully modern humans. For example, it seems likely that mastery of fire took place only subsequent to this spread. Still, spread they did!

    So, how come? Could it be that their geographic spread had less to do with their intelligence per se, than with the fact that although they were Primates and not Carnivores they had adopted a primarily carnivorous lifestyle. I.e., is there something about meat eating that favors geographic diversity, if not density.

    I have been trying to think of other terrestrial mammalian species that are primarily carnivorous, outside of the Orders of Carnivores and Primates. I’m stumped. (Hey, I’m just an amateur not a biologist!) But if there are such species, and if they also exhibit lots of diversity across different habitats, that would be interesting. (At least to me. Who knows if there is anyone else reading this ridiculously long reply.)

    Anyhow Greg, I must thank you again. Your post and reply obviously provoked another person (me in this case but surely there are MANY others) to think about things that otherwise would have been ignored. That’s a really cool use of technology! Now I need to see if I can afford Luke Hunter’s book. 🙂

  13. Michael,

    If you consider fish as prey for carnivores then cetaceans would be seen as a carnivorous clade as well. However if you are one who thinks carnivores and piscivores are distinct then orcas would be easily be the most carnivorous cetaceans. They can kill sea birds, seals and sea lions and other cetaceans including baleen whales!

    Some bat species as well are full time carnivores.
    The Greater Noctule bat is also known to feed on migrating songbirds by night.

    So outside of primates and carnivores, carnivory is surprisingly rare in mammals.

  14. Good answers!

    Let’s see if I can translate Greg’s very polite response to something more blunt:
    Mike was wrong, Mike was wrong, and, Mike was wrong, apparently. lol!

    After reading your link and some other sources I think I see a little wiggle room (Homo Erectus perhaps, maybe, it’s possible, didn’t get fire until after the 2 million year ago mark) but I gotta face it: I was wrong.

    Still, my most important point was that you gave me something to think about, and that certainly remains true. 🙂

    btw – This is driving me crazy with curiosity so I’ll ask again for any input from any Greg readers (even Mrs Newitt whoever you are) Does anyone know of a terrestrial mammal species, outside of the Orders of Carnivores and Primates, that is primarily a meat eater? With all the many mammals out there could it be that there aren’t any examples of a meat eating species that evolved from previously herbivorous ancestors? If that’s the case it says something about evolution. What it says exactly I don’t know, but it kinda seems like it might be significant.

  15. Joe, I didn’t see your comment 18 until after my comment 19. Thanks for the info.

    So it really does seem that outside of the seas, where just about everything eats anything it can catch, that meat eating among mammals is kinda rare. Hmmm. More food for thought! (Sorry for the bad pun, I couldn’t help myself.)

  16. Michael,

    Then if it is other terrestrial mammal species you are curious about then as I mentioned above the bats seem to be the other group where carnivory has sprung up. Only 1% of bat species are full time carnivores. Here are the links:

    Oh I just remembered that marsupials have some carnivores in their ranks particularly the tasmanian devil and the quoll. In ancient times there was also a marsupial lion.

  17. Is there a major difference between the hardcover and paperback versions of this book? I added the paperback to my Amazon wishlist, next time I’m feeling spendy I’ll probably pick it up. But if the hardcover includes substantially more colour illustrations or the range maps or something, it might be worth the tripled price.

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